Growing up in foster homes, Norris Dánta Ford, a fashion designer, cleverly used clothes to impress his future parents, dressing himself and his sister up in multiple outfits to show how stylish they were. Realizing the confidence that can come from clothes, Mr. Ford, 34, built a career as a stylist, working with celebrities including Prince and Matthew McConaughey, before realizing the creative potential in making his own garments. Now a men’s wear pattern designer and online sewing teacher in Atlanta, he is at the forefront of a new and growing movement of men embracing home sewing.
Sewists (the increasingly popular gender-neutral term) have long worked to shake the old-fashioned housewife imagery often associated with their hobby. Collective creative efforts ranging from the AIDS Memorial Quilt to knitting pussy hats have moved the home arts into the political and public sphere. And with DIYers able to show their stuff on platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, sewing and other handicrafts are surging in popularity.
Quarantine has accelerated this trend, with what CNN reports is a significant rise in sewing machine sales (and not just to make face masks). In lieu of traditional crafting circles, makers are connecting on social media to build community and promote diversity and inclusiveness: #vintagestylenotvintagevalues is a popular hashtag, with retro-style sewists disavowing regressive gender politics and racism.
Within these groups are an increasing number of men making clothes not only to break traditional gender stereotypes but also advocate for body acceptance, racial justice and more sustainable lifestyles.
Mr. Ford, who has over 37,000 Instagram followers, started sewing after he began dating his wife, Mimi Goodwin (commonly known as Mimi G), a well-known sewing blogger, creating eclectic garments in a retro streetwear meets business casual style. He quickly realized the limited offerings of men’s sewing patterns: While women’s patterns span vintage reproductions to the latest runway trends, men’s patterns are largely limited to a narrow range of classic silhouettes and many, many pajamas.
Working with the major pattern company Simplicity, Mr. Ford drafted and released his own patterns based on what he thought regular folks would want to wear. He and Ms. Goodwin also own SewItAcademy, an online sewing school.
Still, he is often the only man in a craft store. “The sewing notions, the tools, a lot of it is pink and girlie,” Mr. Ford said. “It’s not a comforting environment for the average guy.” So he started the hashtag #dopemensew, and a Facebook group with around 200 members, to promote the accomplishments of male sewists. “With social media, if you see a guy sewing and you see a clean suit or nice shirt, a guy’s first thought is, ‘Oh man that’s dope. Where can I buy that?’” he said, “And then they look and be like, ‘Oh he made it.’ Come on, you can make that.”
One regular user of the hashtag is Brad Schultz, 35, a first-grade teacher in Gainesville, Fla., who has sewn his own colorful, trend-driven clothes for over a decade. While he enjoys showing his students his creations, Mr. Schultz has no local friends who also sew. He remembered standing out at a sewing convention filled with women in Texas 10 years ago. More recently he has been able to meet fellow male sewists online.
“It’s the same feeling I get when I visit a bigger city, like, there’s more out there,” Mr. Schultz said. “I don’t feel as confined because I know that Instagram opens those doors and it allows me to connect and share.”
Often adapting women’s patterns to his measurements because they are generally more fashionable, Mr. Schultz said that he enjoys making clothes for the perfect fit that is difficult to find in commercial pieces.
“On one hand, the ability to sew and create whatever style I want, in the size I need, gives a huge amount of freedom,” he wrote in an email. “When I am making something I don’t feel as confined or affected by styles ‘meant’ for one gender or the other.”
Independent pattern companies are increasingly making men’s and unisex patterns. In April, Reese Cooper, a designer in Los Angeles, introduced a $98 kit to recreate his popular utilitarian-style coat, which sold out quickly. Mr. Cooper has also offered patches and DIY tie-dye T-shirt kits.
But mainstream sewing companies have moved slowly to market to men. Mr. Ford thinks there might be many men who sew, but don’t publicly share their creations, since the perception that this is “women’s work” has lingered.
Going back to the Middle Ages, men and women in Europe were both part of sewing trades, particularly when it came to embroidering garments for royalty and clergy, according to Clare Hunter, a textile artist and author of “Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle.” The Black Death pandemic wiped out much of their wealthy clientele, leaving the few jobs left to men who organized gender-exclusive guilds. It was mostly men who benefited from the development of eastern travel routes and new trade in silk and other fine textiles.
While men made luxurious garments for the court, women worked in more practical cottons and linens. With the advent of the sewing machine and industrialized clothing production in the 19th century, women, particularly immigrants, often took low paying factory jobs while male designers were at the helm of the first modern fashion houses.
Sewing and needlework were increasingly taught to girls in schools, becoming central to the concept of homemaking, said Sarah Gordon, author of “Make it Yourself: Home Sewing, Gender, and Culture, 1890-1930.” “The sewing training conveyed not only that this is a way to be a woman and a mother, but this is a way to be an American,” Ms. Gordon said.
By the 1920s, the rising availability of commercial garments decreased the demand for home sewing and consequently the value associated with it.
And as more women entered the work force, they no longer needed nor had the time to learn these skills. Home economics, which included sewing and other domestic arts, was increasingly left out of school curriculum. Over time, the skill of the craft became marginalized as market-driven fashion cycles intensified, with designs quickly going from runways to fashion retails within days.
Joe Ando-Hirsh, a sewist in New York who did not want to give his age because he also acts, thinks this disconnection between the technical process and final garment has been further strengthened by the commercialization of fashion week, where the focus is largely on documenting the shows and celebrities and not what goes into making the collection. With TikTok, Mr. Ando-Hirsh tries to give sewing modern clout.
He was planning his senior fashion show at the Fashion Institute of Technology and organizing a summer internship when coronavirus hit. Mr. Ando-Hirsh moved from Brooklyn to his parents’ house on Long Island, setting up a studio in their garage. His girlfriend Niamh Adkins, a model, suggested he make a TikTok profile about sewing. On March 14, he shared the process of sewing a red jacket with heart details for her birthday. In the months since, he has gained over 800,000 followers, and also started posting tutorials on YouTube.
“I’m happy that these videos are giving some kids permission to pursue what they want to do, ”Mr. Ando-Hirsh said, “because there’s so many people who comment saying like, ‘Man I always had thought about doing fashion but I went to med school instead and I really regret it.’”
Currently inspired by mixing the cream colors of desert environments with the oversized, masculine style of 1970s Wall Street, Mr. Ando-Hirsh takes custom orders and hopes to start his own business focusing on unisex fashion. He hopes to appeal to younger generations that are more fluid with their clothing choices and particularly men who are increasingly willing to take fashion risks, experimenting with color and more form fitting styles.
“All of that is changing right now,” he said, “I think aside from the pandemic, it’s a really good and interesting time to be a designer because there’s more people out there who are open to what you’re doing.”
Brandon Hayden, 24, a sewist in Atlanta who runs Happily Dressed, a wellness brand, also has this mind-set. Mr. Hayden has a fraternal twin and wanted to distinguish himself by wearing thrifted outfits that mixed more masculine and feminine styles. Sewing enables him to envision garments beyond the narrow fashion choices for men, and also take a stand against environmentally damaging fast fashion cycles. He thrifts most of his fabrics, often using curtains, tablecloths and other unexpected materials: Upholstery fabric with safari animals became a cropped jacket and a Carhartt denim coat was transformed into a chain bag.
“Sewing has shown me that you can do whatever you put your mind to and not only that: the praise for your individuality and not having to spend an arm and a leg just to keep up with the trends,” Mr. Hayden said. “You become your own trend, which I think is the best way to live your life.”
His YouTube tutorials range from a tiered dress to a loose romper to a vest and pants set. This summer, he raffled off two sewing machines, with entries based on participating in the voting process or going to a protest, designating one for a person of color.
“Being a minority in America, it’s hard to feel capable when popular opinion doesn’t always portray people who look like you as capable,” said Mr. Hayden, who is Black. “Being able to sell and create things for a fraction of the price that they cost opened my mind to how boxed in other people’s opinions can be about who you can be, whether it’s skin color, race or gender.”
In recent months, sewists and other creatives formed Black Makers Matter, a coalition intended to transform the sewing community. Members have met with top sewing brands to discuss lack of diversity and highlight Black creators on their social media pages, including Michael Gardner, 36, a sewist in Philadelphia who for the last six years has dedicated his free time to making clothes for his daughter Ava, sharing his creations on the website and Instagram account Daddy Dressed Me by Michael Gardner.
Mr. Gardner said his own father was absent growing up, and that he was inspired by his sister to start sewing outfits for Ava when she was three, refashioning adult garments to fit her. Ava now helps select fabrics and style photo shoots. Mr. Gardner said sewing has become a way for them to bond, and builds her confidence, including after she experienced bullying at school. He said that other students didn’t believe her when she said that her father made her clothes and did her hair.
“For her it’s kind of all she knows, so she thinks other dads are doing it too,” he said. “But seeing her be proud about it, I just usually have a big smile on my face.”
Mr. Gardner recently sewed a blue sequined suit for Ava’s 9th birthday and a full set of outfits for the family to wear for his engagement to his fiancée. Despite having sewn over 200 garments for Ava, he’s just starting to make clothes for himself, and while he originally dedicated his social media to his relationship with Ava, he has increasingly included his perspective as a male sewist. He was recently named a brand ambassador for Janome, a sewing machine company.
And through #dopemensew, he has been connecting with beginner sewists, including one who bought a machine during quarantine and just made his first button-down shirt. “His mom actually DMed me when she saw the post where I shared him,” Mr. Gardner said, “and was like, ‘That’s my son. I’m so proud.’”